Transition to Academia III: Designing a New Course

When I interviewed at my present university, a major focus of my sales pitch was the geographical relevance of my field of environmental physiology and temperature regulation to Dalhousie University, located on the edge of the North Atlantic. I stressed how there was a driving need to incorporate the impact of environmental stressors into the department's research emphases and curriculum. Much to my delight, not only did this strategy earn me the position, but also the opportunity to develop a brand-new upper undergraduate course entitled "Environmental Impact on Human Physiology and Performance."

A few things played in my favor in getting this opportunity. First, my position was a newly created one rather than a replacement, meaning that there was a higher probability that there would be space in the overall faculty workload for adding a new course. Second, my field of research was completely new to the university, making it easier to convince the department that a course in my field was essential. After all, what's the point of hiring me, I argued, if my area was not represented in the curriculum?

I was very fortunate, as my department essentially gave me a blank check to design the course content and pedagogy in any way that I wished. Not only that, I managed to negotiate part of my workload in my first year specifically toward developing the course, with the agreement to offer the course in the second semester of my second year. This meant that I had sufficient time to do the necessary planning and research.

Before you set out to design or significantly revamp a course, establish clearly your mandate. Just how much freedom do you have? Are you developing a new course to accommodate a specific need within the department? Are you developing one course in relative isolation or is it part of a larger project within the department?

Interview all of the stakeholders. Talk to the instructors teaching pre- and corequisite courses so that you can understand exactly what skills the students will have when entering your course. Also, interview instructors for whom your course may become a prerequisite. It is also important to appreciate the needs of the nonacademic community. Especially in the sciences, certain content or technical proficiencies may be very important in the ability of your students to obtain employment or to further progress in their field. As I mentioned in the first article of this series, it is very helpful if the department as a whole can develop a comprehensive plan of the skills and proficiencies that a student should be developing in each course and year of the program.

Ideally, your department will have an empty slot in the program so that you can run your course on a trial basis prior to going through the long process of gaining official approval. For example, our departmental handbook has a course called "Senior Seminars in Kinesiology" that was designed to accommodate one-off courses, and I ran my course under this umbrella for the first 2 years while trying out the format and then waiting for formal approval. The advantage of this approach is that you can run the course through the first time without committing to a particular content or format, as would be the case once you receive formal approval. It also permits you to get valuable feedback from your colleagues and your first crop of students. Having a proven trial course under your belt before applying for formal approval will also strengthen your case for acceptance.

The Course Proposal

The course proposal is the primary document that your university will review in approving your course. It is essentially a contract between the university and your department for the delivery of the course, so make sure you prepare it carefully and seek as much input as possible prior to submission. Keep in mind that it is a laborious and possibly difficult task to substantially change the course down the road, so take care in designing something that you will be happy teaching for a number of years. Similar to research grants and teaching dossiers, individuals outside your department and area of interest will evaluate it. Therefore, avoid jargon and the fine detail of your course (e.g., it is usually not necessary to lay out every reagent and chemical equation you will use in the lab), sticking with the major content and the pedagogy underlying the course. Every university will have different requirements that must be addressed in the proposal, but these are generally common to most institutions:

  • Course rationale: A statement on why there is a need for the course. You might relate the course to the department's mission statement or community requests. Also, this is the section where you would discuss how the course would fit into the overall curriculum, both in timeline and how it relates to other courses in the curriculum.

  • Educational goals and objectives: List a few key goals that students should be able to achieve by the end of the course. Be focused yet limit yourself to the broadest and most important goals. One of three primary goals in my course proposal was to "Enable the students to analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of present and potential countermeasures to minimize environmental effects on human performance."

  • Eligibility: What are the pre- or corequisites for taking the course? Is the course restricted to students in your program only?

  • Details on the specific content and pedagogy of the course: My entire course was built around the students writing a state-of-the-art textbook on a particular environmental stressor (e.g., heat stress, altitude, microgravity), so I spent a great deal of time discussing my pedagogical rationale for this approach.

  • Evaluation: How will the progress of the students be measured and evaluated throughout the course?

  • Resource implications: What will you actually need to conduct this course? Scheduling (e.g., 3x1h, 2x1.5h, 1x3h time slots)? Teaching assistants? Laboratory space, supplies, and time? Textbooks, audiovisual aids, or funding for field trips? Library resources? Make sure you do not shortchange your requirements, as it is much more difficult to request something later.

  • Calendar entry: This is the little blurb that will appear in the university calendar. Often, it is the main piece of information that students have when deciding upon courses. Therefore, it should form a tight summary and be specific enough to target the students appropriate for your course.

  • Attachments: If you have any prepared material, submit them so that the reviewers can get a fuller appreciation for your course. Besides my course outline and schedule, I included my take-home final exam and also my reading list from recent journal articles.

Even if you are not presently in a position to undertake designing a new course, the above can still be a valuable exercise, especially when preparing for interviews. One question I always ask candidates is, "If you were given the opportunity, what new course would you design for this department and how would you teach it?" Think big, because this may be one of the few opportunities you will ever have to teach exactly as you desire!

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